JERUSALEM – Former Vice President Mike Pence spoke with two far-right Israelis with past links to a banned Jewish terror group during a visit to a hard-line settlement in the occupied West Bank.
The visit to Hebron on Wednesday was part of a tour highlighting the Trump administration's unprecedented support for Israel and for its settlements built on occupied land the Palestinians want for a future state. Pence, a popular figure in the Republican party's evangelical wing, has recently appeared to be laying the groundwork for a possible presidential run in 2024.
He visited the traditional burial place of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims, at a site known as the Cave of the Patriarchs. It is adjacent to a Jewish settlement in which hundreds of hard-line settlers live under military protection in the heart of a city of more than 200,000 Palestinians.
While there, Pence spoke with Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right member of Israel's parliament, and Baruch Marzel, who was barred from running in elections in 2019. Both are disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated a violent, anti-Arab ideology before he was assassinated by an Egyptian-American in New York in 1990.
In 1994, Kahane follower Baruch Goldstein opened fire at the Hebron holy site, killing 29 Muslim worshippers and wounding over 100. That led both Israel and the U.S. to label his Kach movement and an offshoot, Kahane Lives, as terrorist groups.
Ben Gvir and Marzel have distanced themselves from some of Kahane's more radical views but are still widely seen as extremists. Until a couple years ago, Ben Gvir hung a portrait of Goldstein in his living room.
They were among several Israelis who welcomed Pence to the holy site, and Israeli media reported that they greeted him on their own initiative.
Ben Gvir tweeted a picture of himself shaking hands with Pence. “I was happy to meet former Vice President Mike Pence in Hebron, the city of our forefathers. I thanked him for coming to visit us, and for his stance and support on the side of Israel," he wrote.
Marzel told The Associated Press he was in Hebron as a resident and as someone who works at the holy site. “I don't think he knew who I am,” he said, adding that he thanked Pence for his support of Israel and wished him luck.
Pence later tweeted a picture of himself posing with a group of nine people, including Ben Gvir, in front of the holy site. American businessman Simon Falic, a prominent supporter of the settlements, also was in the group.
Pence has been traveling the U.S., delivering policy speeches and raising money for midterm candidates. He has also been distancing himself from Donald Trump, directly rebutting the former president’s false claims about the 2020 election and stating bluntly that Trump was “wrong” to insist that Pence could have unilaterally overturned the results.
This week, Pence met with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and accepted an honorary doctorate from Ariel University, in an Israeli settlement in the heart of the West Bank.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and has built some 130 settlements that are home to nearly 500,000 settlers. The Palestinians want the West Bank to be part of their future state, and most of the international community considers the settlements illegal.